A Surprising Way to Strengthen Relationships
The power of using agendas outside of work to help you connect
If you’ve ever attended a work meeting, you know that a good agenda can make all the difference between an ineffective gathering that runs too long and a productive session that accomplishes its goals within the allotted time.
We don’t think twice about using an agenda for a meeting at work. But outside of a work context? We’re often reluctant to bring out an agenda.
Perhaps we don’t want to impose something associated with work on the personal realm for fear of appearing too clinical or business-like. Perhaps we’re trying to be whatcalls (in her insightful book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters) a “chill host” - someone who’s “relaxed and low-key” when it comes to connecting with family and friends. However, Parker argues, “chill is a miserable attitude when it comes to hosting gatherings.”1 The most effective hosts take the reins to provide much-needed structure and definition; agendas help.
Even a gathering of two people can sometimes benefit from having a clear purpose and agenda. Parker reminds us that being thoughtful about our “desired outcome” (what we want to get out of any gathering) - whether in a work or a personal context - helps ensure we use people’s time well and that we achieve what we set out to do.2
Once we know our desired outcome, we can develop a clear agenda that guides the discussion, ensuring everyone knows what to expect and all points get covered.
I’ve used agendas in a non-work context for more than a decade, and I’ve found that rather than alienating others, agendas have had the opposite effect; they’ve resulted in stronger relationships.
In this post, I offer two agendas: 1) the agenda we use for our weekly family meeting (which all subscribers will be able to see) and 2) the agenda my husband and I use for our annual “state of the union” review (which only paid subscribers will be able to see). At this year’s annual review, our first as double entrepreneurs, I introduced a new prompt related to money that turned out to be very enlightening (it’s included for paid subscribers as well).
This content is the first I’m putting behind a paywall — mostly because it’s personal but also because I’m experimenting with various Substack features and I’m curious about this one. Thanks for being on this journey with me!
Want access to both agendas, plus the bonus game-changing money discussion prompt? Consider becoming a paid subscriber!
Our weekly family meeting helps us stay connected
I recently shared my family’s nightly dinner ritual. We have another regular ritual, our weekly family meeting, which happens every Sunday evening (we skip rose, thorn, and bud that night).
We adopted the practice of having a family meeting after visiting our friends Vanessa and Read (whose kids are slightly older than ours), and hearing them reference their family meeting. Intrigued, I asked them to tell me more.
Read has three siblings, and he grew up having a weekly family meeting. He and Vanessa started their own version when their kids were in elementary school as a way to get on the same page about logistics (such as allowance distribution and ride requests) as well as more substantial topics (such as getting a dog).
I loved the idea. While I’d long participated in weekly team meetings at work to stay connected with colleagues, it had never occurred to me to hold a meeting at home to stay connected as a family. As economistaptly observes in The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years, “even people who use these [business processes and] tools every day at work do not always see their parallel uses at home.”3
Our kids were still quite little, so I did some research and put together an agenda I thought would work for the kids’ ages at the time (four and six) but also as they grew older and could participate more fully.
Please enjoy this image of our agenda, which is much fancier than the version scribbled on a chalkboard we used in the past (we’ve since gotten rid of that; we’ve all memorized the agenda anyway).
It’s fairly self-explanatory, but here are some more details:
After someone calls the family meeting to order (which involves enthusiastically clinking a fork on a glass), we start with appreciations. Each person shares something they genuinely appreciate about the three other family members (we’ve had to establish norms about what counts as a genuine appreciation - “I appreciate that you weren’t as annoying as you were last week” does not count).
We review the week and collectively choose one of the things that didn’t go well to work on during the week ahead (e.g., using kinder voices or focusing on having smoother transitions out the door in the morning, etc.). We record these in a notebook so we can look back on last week’s pick and discuss how we did.
We review schedules for the week; a giant calendar on the wall provides visual reinforcement. This is also when our kids can make schedule requests (e.g., assignments they need our help with or playdates they want to have), so they don’t spring those on us at the last minute.
We distribute allowances (minus any fines, which are recorded on the calendar).
We celebrate making it to the end with a family meeting treat (usually a baked good). As an incentive, only those who participate fully earn the treat.
We occasionally insert other relevant topics as needed. For example, we recently noted that this year’s parental Hanukkah gifts would be experiences, not things, and we brainstormed ones everyone would enjoy (mini-golf topped the list).
Truth be told, our family meeting isn’t always a well-oiled machine. It’s not uncommon for someone to be asked to get out from under the table so we can finish. But we’ve found it’s worth pushing through; our meeting not only allows us to get on the same page logistically, it has larger benefits as well. First, it normalizes the practice of using an agenda to make non-work meetings run smoothly. It also teaches our kids that personal relationships require effort…and demonstrates that they do get stronger when we put in that effort.
I’m including my product recommendation in the middle of the post instead of at the end so everyone can see it. In the spirit of stronger relationships, I wanted to share my affection for a button called 30-Second Dance Party, which when pressed, delivers exactly what it promises: 30 seconds of dance party music.
I first learned about it when a former colleague played it during a virtual meeting in the thick of the pandemic (thank you, Curtis!). It gave everyone in the Zoom room a much-needed laugh and dance break. I immediately ordered one for our family, figuring my kids (who at that point were going stir-crazy from too many months of remote school) would welcome any chance to move their bodies.
Over the past three years, our button has evolved to serve two primary functions: 1) it gets us out of a funk (we have a family rule that everyone has to get up and dance when they hear it, even if they’re grumpy), and 2) when pressed during kid screen time, it signals to our kids that they have 30 seconds to power off their screens or they risk losing them the next day (this turns out to be highly effective).
Check out the 30-Second Dance Party and come up with your own creative uses for it! I don’t have a discount code for you this time, but they often send discounts to their email list.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.
An annual review can enhance a romantic relationship
When I was pregnant with my older son, I organized a conference session called “Making It Work” (inspired, of course, by my co-author’s Work and Family class at the GSB), where successful dual-career couples pulled back the curtain and shared the habits and practices that enabled them to have full careers and full family lives.
One couple on the panel mentioned that in addition to their weekly meetings, which were more tactical, they made time for an annual strategic relationship review. Ross and I had been doing an ad hoc review on our annual drive down to Palo Alto to speak to Myra’s class (we figured it was better to share any gripes with each other before we aired them in front of the entire class). Inspired by the couple on the panel, and knowing there were big changes ahead for us, we decided to formalize the practice. We’d already planned to go away for a weekend “babymoon” before our son arrived, so we carved out some time on that weekend for a review (for some reason we called it a “summit”), and I developed an agenda.
Our first summit was 11 years ago this month, and we’ve used a version of that same agenda (minus the part where we brainstormed baby names) in all of our summits since then, including the one we held last week (newly branded the Money and Love Summit - trademark coming soon!).
Myra and I wrote about the importance of conducting an annual relationship review in Chapter Five of our book (on dividing housework and home management). When you live with someone, there are countless mundane details to manage, especially if you have children. It can sometimes be too easy to focus on the trees (logistics) and miss the forest (bigger picture relationship goals and satisfaction). A strategic review helps you zoom out and dedicate time to discussing the big rocks in your lives. I’m convinced this practice contributed to us making the bold moves we’ve made over the last few years, including leaving corporate jobs to start our own businesses.
Recently, I mentioned our annual relationship summit to a friend, and she asked me for our agenda to use with her husband. I shared it with her, along with the money exercise. Afterward, she reported that the experience was a success. She noted that “having an agenda kept us from talking about logistics/regressing to our usual conversation tactics” and observed that the money question in particular prompted “an interesting discussion” that allowed them to “build connection through sharing.”
Our summit agenda and bonus money discussion prompt are below; feel free to modify them as you see fit, or copy them wholesale if you’d like. Even if you’ve been with your partner for years, it’s never too late to introduce this conversation. You might just find that it helps you strengthen your relationship and learn new things about your person, no matter how long you’ve been together.